More than 500,000 pieces of debris, or “space junk,” are tracked as they orbit the Earth. They all travel at speeds up to 17,500 mph, fast enough for a relatively small piece of orbital debris to damage a satellite or a spacecraft.
The rising population of space debris increases the potential danger to all space vehicles, but especially to the International Space Station, space shuttles and other spacecraft with humans aboard.
NASA takes the threat of collisions with space debris seriously and has a long-standing set of guidelines on how to deal with each potential collision threat. These guidelines, part of a larger body of decision-making aids known as flight rules, specify when the expected proximity of a piece of debris increases the probability of a collision enough that evasive action or other precautions to ensure the safety of the crew are needed.
Space debris encompasses both natural (meteoroid) and artificial (man-made) particles. Meteoroids are in orbit about the sun, while most artificial debris is in orbit about the Earth. Hence, the latter is more commonly referred to as orbital debris.
Orbital debris is any man-made object in orbit about the Earth which no longer serves a useful function. Such debris includes nonfunctional spacecraft, abandoned launch vehicle stages, mission-related debris and fragmentation debris. There are more than 20,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the Earth. They travel at speeds up to 17,500 mph, fast enough for a relatively small piece of orbital debris to damage a satellite or a spacecraft. There are 500,000 pieces of debris the size of a marble or larger. There are many millions of pieces of debris that are so small they can’t be tracked.
Even tiny paint flecks can damage a spacecraft when traveling at these velocities. In fact a number of space shuttle windows have been replaced because of damage caused by material that was analyzed and shown to be paint flecks.
The Department of Defense maintains a highly accurate satellite catalog on objects in Earth orbit that are larger than a softball. NASA and the DoD cooperate and share responsibilities for characterizing the satellite (including orbital debris) environment. DoD’s Space Surveillance Network tracks discrete objects as small as 2 inches (5 centimeters) in diameter in low Earth orbit and about 1 yard (1 meter) in geosynchronous orbit. Currently, about 15,000 officially cataloged objects are still in orbit. The total number of tracked objects exceeds 21,000. Using special ground-based sensors and inspections of returned satellite surfaces, NASA statistically determines the extent of the population for objects less than 4 inches (10 centimeters) in diameter.
Collision risks are divided into three categories depending upon size of threat. For objects 4 inches (10 centimeters) and larger, conjunction assessments and collision avoidance maneuvers are effective in countering objects which can be tracked by the Space Surveillance Network. Objects smaller than this usually are too small to track and too large to shield against. Debris shields can be effective in withstanding impacts of particles smaller than half an inch (1 centimeter).